MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The United States and the Philippines on Thursday announced plans to expand the U.S. military presence in the Southeast Asian nation, with access to four additional bases, to counter China’s increasingly aggressive moves against Taiwan. to startle and in the disputed South China Sea.
The agreement was reached while US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in the country for talks about deploying US troops and weapons to more Philippine military camps.
In a joint announcement from the Philippines and the US, the two said they had decided to accelerate the full implementation of their so-called Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which aims to support combined training, exercises and interoperability.
As part of the agreement, the US has committed $82 million to infrastructure improvements at five current EDCA sites, as well as expanding its military presence to four new sites in “strategic areas of the country,” the statement said.
Austin arrived in the Philippines from South Korea on Tuesday, where he said the US would deploy more advanced weapons such as fighter jets and bombers to the Korean Peninsula to support joint training with South Korean forces in response to North Korea’s growing nuclear threat.
In the Philippines, Washington’s oldest treaty ally in Asia and a key front in the U.S. counter-terrorism effort, Austin visited the southern city of Zamboanga and met with Filipino generals and a small contingent of U.S. counter-terrorism troops stationed at a local military camp. The Philippine Regional Military Commander Lt Said General Roy Galido. The more than 100 US military personnel have for years provided intelligence and combat advice to Philippine troops battling a decades-long Islamist insurgencywhich has decreased significantly but remains a significant threat.
More recently, US forces have intensified and expanded joint training, focusing on combat readiness and disaster relief with Philippine troops on the western coast of the country, which faces the South China Sea, and in the northern Luzon region across the sea from the Taiwan Strait.
US troops were allowed access to five Philippine military camps, where they could rotate indefinitely under the 2014 EDCA defense pact.
In October, the US sought access for a greater number of its forces and weapons to another five military camps, mainly in the north. That request would be high on the agenda of Austin meetings, according to Philippine officials.
“Secretary Austin’s visit will no doubt be related to many of the ongoing discussions on the EDCA sites,” Jose Romualdez, the Philippine ambassador to Washington, said at a news conference.
Austin was scheduled to hold talks Thursday with his Philippine counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jr., and national security adviser Eduardo Ano, Romualdez said. Austin will appeal separately to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office in June and has since taken steps to strengthen relations with Washington.
The US defense chief is the last senior official to visit the Philippines after Vice President Kamala Harris in November in a sign of warm ties after a tense period under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte had nurtured close ties with China and Russia and at one point threatened to sever ties with Washington, kick out visiting US troops and cancel a major defense pact.
Romualdez said the Philippines should work with Washington to deter any escalation of tensions between China and self-governed Taiwan — not only because of the treaty alliance, but also to help avoid major conflict.
“We are in a Catch-22 situation. If China moves militarily towards Taiwan, we will be affected – and the entire ASEAN region, but especially us, Japan and South Korea,” Romualdez told The Associated Press, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 10-nation regional bloc that includes the Philippines.
The Philippines and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, along with Taiwan, are embroiled in increasingly tense territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. The US is seen as a crucial counterweight to China in the region and has pledged to defend the Philippines if Philippine forces, ships or aircraft are attacked in the disputed waters.
The Philippines used to be home to two of the largest US naval and air bases outside of the US mainland. The bases were closed in the early 1990s after the Philippine Senate rejected an extension, but U.S. troops returned for large-scale combat exercises with Philippine troops under a 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement.
The Philippine Constitution prohibits the permanent basing of foreign troops and their involvement in local combat.